Revision Boot Camp: So you think you get a few days off?

Yes I ordered you to set aside your manuscript for a week. And YES I got distracted by my book hitting the top ten, but you honestly thought you got a day off? This is BOOT CAMP, Private, not summer vacation. Today I’m talking about your first assignment before revising Act 3, the query letter.

Boot camp artwork is from the U.S. Army Online Gallery, this one by SFC Peter T. Varisano. Click for a full gallery of his work

Boot camp artwork is from the U.S. Army Online Gallery, this one by SFC Peter T. Varisano. Click for a full gallery of his work

An average query letter has three to five paragraphs. I recommend three, why? Because all over the internet there are formulas for writing query letters. Every day, the best agents get dozens of them.

So how do you stand out?

That’s a multi-million dollar question, but my advice is to grab his/her attention and leave him/her curious–sort of dangling. They say that you might get ten seconds to make your case, maybe less before that agent hits “send” on their nifty rejection form letter and moves on.

Frustrated yet? I was. I remember working on the traditional form query letter for months. I was supposed to boil down my opening few chapters into a couple paragraphs. I was supposed to include plot points. My effort picked up a few nibbkes, but the letter didn’t really represent my book anymore. It had taken on a life of its own. So the agents who liked my letter didn’t like the pages. Ugh! Thank heavens someone mentioned the pitch query.

The Pitch Query

The original reference to this mysterious concept came from a fellow writer who mentioned an article in Writing World interviewing several agents. One of them, Liza Dawson said, “I prefer a pitch letter, with writing credentials and the points of the story so I will be able to tell right away if it is something I can market. “

(seemed logical … what’s the point of my book)

Not much to go on, but I sort of extrapolated it further to mean, use your elevator pitch, silly. In other words, if you have ten seconds, write a query that makes your case in 5. Base it on your elevator pitch, that one-sentence description of your book that captures its essence. Then extend it to a short paragraph in a way that will appeal to THAT agent.

Write a new letter every time with a personal opening line explaining why you are querying, a custom paragraph, and a couple sentences about you.

Here’s what I ended up with for one agent:

Dear X,

I admire your work with (famous client) and hope you’ll consider representing my 86,000-word mystery.

EXPLODE THE BACK is about an artist who paints a crime scene in reverse perspective and turns a murder investigation backwards–onto her friends. To clear them, she introduces undercover feds into her art-punk community. She betrays its secrets. Along the way she figures out that it isn’t her art that describes her–or even herself. Adele Proust is truly defined by her reflection on the people around her–the way she treats the people she loves.

(A sentence about me, the newbie with no platform, and offer to send the manuscript at her request–like yesterday!)

With sincere thanks for your consideration,

That was it. That query sold two small publishers and a few agents on my book. One agent made it clear that she liked the book but since I had no platform, no fan base, it would be a hard sell to a big publisher. I also had no real art credentials. So I chose the better match of the two publishers and am so glad I did.

The point is that my query suddenly succeeded when I decided to pitch the agent in simple terms rather than try to reduce my opening chapters into paragraphs. I told her about the book, fast, like I would tell a friend. It worked for me and I immediately strengthened my third act by bringing out my moral a little more.

So to help with your revision, I suggest writing your pitch query. Right now. We’ll talk synopsis tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Revision Boot Camp: So you think you get a few days off?

  1. luciesmoker says:

    Sorry, fixed the link to that article that didn’t work.

  2. Jen Donohue says:

    Sigh, query letters. Query letters are hard, and advice like this (especially with an example!) is very helpful.

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